Is scientific testimony equivalent to the testimony of someone’s religious experience? Am I being cynical for trusting a scientist that describes the results of their experiment and the conclusions they draw from those results, but questioning the testimony of someone who is telling me about their religious experience? Am I being unfairly biased between these two types of testimony?
I don’t trust scientists because of their reputation or distrust a religious testimony because of the character of the person providing that testimony. We don't need to trust scientists. We don't need to take their word for it. Their experiments can be duplicated. You can read up on the experiments and the equations used. If you're really motivated you can go to school, study up, and join a lab where these experiments are preformed. Where is the experimentation that verifies religious experiences? What equations have we formulated about the spiritual? Religious testimony has not been validated. If we could validate these things, they would be incorporated into our scientific understanding. When there is a contradiction between a subjective testimony and the known scientific understanding, one is in error. I tend to side with the one that has the strongest evidence. I don’t consider that to be cynicism or unfairly biased. To me it’s about the evidence.
Is it possible for someone to have a reputation as a liar, and yet be honest about an experience? Or, is it possible that someone with good standing might tell about an experience that in reality did not happen? I believe both of these scenarios are possible. Since we've all heard the tale about the boy who cried wolf, I’ll jump to the scenarios about an honest person giving a false testimony. Why would that happen? How could that happen?
One way is through confirmation bias. In short, confirmation bias is a way of jumping to a conclusion without having any way to test whether or not a cause is actually responsible for a particular effect. People have a tendency to make assumptions. When things occur that fall in line with our assumptions, we validate those assumptions. Why question the assumptions that seem to be working? But, often it's also the case that we ignore results that do not fall in line with our assumptions. This leads people to not question their preconceived assumptions. This is why it’s important to duplicate experiments, and if possible doubly blind them.
Another problem is with pattern recognition. Our brains function by recognizing patterns. It's actually one of our brain’s best features. But, this feature also has the problem of seeing patterns when there are none. This is one way that superstitions begin. "I wore a favorite shirt and my team won. I wear the same shirt next week and they win again. I wear it all year long and they go to the super bowl. My team must have won because I wore a lucky shirt." Is this person lying? No. He did wear his favorite shirt and the team did win. But, that doesn't mean that one thing did in fact cause the other. How many times have you heard about someone seeing the face of Jesus or the Virgin Mary in rust stains on the side of a building? Once our brains lock on to a pattern it's actually hard not to see it. Pattern recognition gone awry is also the cause of schizophrenia. It's not that they're lying about what they're seeing. It's that their brain is interpreting patterns that aren't there.
The brain is also capable of delusion. Delusions are the result of a malfunctioning brain. Drugs can cause delusions, so can dehydration or sleepiness. I recently listened to a podcast about a doctor that was talking about his near death experience. He is a man of a good character. Based on the podcast, I accept that he is convinced that he actually saw what he claims to have seen. But, he believes that what he saw was generated outside his own mind. And, the contention is his brain was in a state of malfunctioning and it's likely that he was in a delusional dream state, and that is the source of his near death experience. Is there some objective way to test this claim? Some experiments have been conducted placing playing cards on top of dressers. If someone claims they have an out of body experience, can they describe the playing cards? So far, to my knowledge, no one has validated an out of body experience. But what they have done is identify the part of the brain that malfunctions during an out of body experience. They can now induce that experience in others. So far, the objective evidence seems to support the theory that these experiences are being produced by the brain and nothing more.
These are just some examples how an honest man of good character could be telling about an experience that has no basis in reality. So, how can we possibly know if someone is mistaken, dishonest, or has actually experienced something extra-ordinary? If we are going to accept their testimony it would have to be confirmed by the evidence. The purpose of using objective science to test claims is to verify apart from a single individual that the effect is real and demonstrable. If not demonstrable, then at least we should be able to give a logical explanation for how an event may have occurred. Logical deduction and scientific experimentation can take a subjective experience and verify it with objective science.
I admit I'm not a scientist, and I do have to rely on the findings of other scientists. I tend to accept those findings more if I know there have been multiple demonstrations and there is a consensus among the findings. But, you are under no obligation to accept something that you don't understand. I have a coworker that refuses to accept the existence of time dilation. I've seen the equations that time dilation is based on, and have read up on various experiments that have confirmed that time dilation is a real thing. Our GPS system has to adjust for time dilation due to being further away from the earth than we are. But, my coworker is not convinced. That's fine with me. It's a hard concept to wrap your mind around. For me, the evidence is strong and conclusive. I don’t have this same type of evidence for these religious claims. It seems more plausible that the religious testimony is in error than all the scientific understanding we have. If that seems cynical to you, then so be it. I've been called worse.